May 15, 2002

Malaysia asks for U.S. patience on democracy

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The prime minister of Malaysia warned on Tuesday not to expect an overnight change on democracy and human rights in his country, regardless of a recent thaw in relations with the United States.
During a luncheon speech before some members of Congress, Mahathir Mohamad said he understands U.S. concerns about freedom in Malaysia and asked for patience, adding that democracy "is only a means, and not an end in itself.
"The West is very impatient. You want an overnight change," Mahathir said. "Sudden change, even if it is for the good, is disruptive. Democracy for people who are not used to it can undermine stability, resulting in war even. ...
"It is well to remember that democracy is only a means, and not an end in itself," he added. "It is the good life that democracy brings that counts, not democracy per se."
The luncheon took place before Mahathir's meeting with President Bush. The meeting was expected to focus on the anti-terrorism campaign; White House officials did not say whether human rights is on the agenda.
Mahathir has long been controversial because of his jailing in 1998 of his former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim. But the United States warmed up to him after September 11, mainly because his government worked to round up terror suspects.
Malaysia also provided key intelligence about al-Qaida activities throughout southeast Asia, according to FBI Director Robert Mueller. Since September 11, Malaysia has arrested more than 60 suspected Islamic militants with alleged ties to al-Qaida, including a former army captain accused of letting two of the terrorist hijackers meet in his apartment in 2000.
Human rights groups argue that Mahathir is using the effort to rein in al-Qaida as an excuse to wipe out a legitimate Islamic political opposition at home.
Tuesday, Sen. Kit Bond, R-Missouri, praised Mahathir as "a very, very valuable that part of the world," as he received the Malaysian leader at the Capitol.
Mahathir said his country is "unable to accept the absolute freedom that you believe in. ... One day perhaps we will be comfortable with your values, but for the moment we are not comfortable."
Overall, he said, the United States should realize that it comes across to the rest of the world as a bully. "All that is needed is to be more gentle when faced with recalcitrant nations and people," Mahathir said. "People tend to respond more positively to the friendly approach than to confrontations. Pushed into a corner, even the weakest will fight."
Last month, the top State Department official for the region called the trials of the former deputy prime minister unfair, but said the issue would not block the Bush meeting.
Mahathir told The Associated Press in a rare interview recently that there is a better "understanding" of the Anwar case in Washington now. Mahathir had been largely shunned until recently by U.S. officials, who were angered by the jailing of Anwar and by Mahathir's past tirades against Jews.